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Every work day at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, contractor Mike Austad pulls up a chair and begins scanning aerial photographs of the Earth’s surface into the massive public database that is EarthExplorer.

Infrared photo of plane in flight
A Northrup T-38 Talon in flight, captured in an infrared photograph in 1971 over Pasadena, TX. Download via EarthExplorer.

He scans images captured decades ago by research centers and federal agencies in long-forgotten missions flown to document conditions on the Earth’s surface.

For the most part, Austad and his counterparts in the EROS Data Management and Information Delivery (DMID) project see just that: the Earth’s surface. Every now and again, though, they stumble across something unexpected.

That’s what happened a few weeks ago as Austad tore through a canister of film from NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center, one of 680-odd Johnson canisters left to scan. During a visual inspection of six color infrared images captured September of 1971 over Ellington Airfield near Pasadena, TX, Austad saw two airplanes in flight.

They weren’t tiny, grainy specks. Two of the images are clear enough to make out the helmets of two jet pilots – one image suggests that a pilot is waving at the aircraft above – as well an early version of the NASA logo on the plane’s rudder. Another shot had two planes in flight – the two-person jet and a larger aircraft bearing the words “NASA Earth Survey 2” on the fuselage near the pilot side cockpit.

Austad had seen oddities before – smoke billowing from an old steam train or trees spelling out the word “Studebaker” at the former Indiana automaker’s 1950s proving ground.

Even so, Austad said, “I thought that was pretty unique.”

The two-seat aircraft was a Northrup T-38 Talon, the world’s most popular supersonic trainer. The larger aircraft, it turned out, was a C-130 – a plane used to test sensors that would later be used for Earth observing satellites.

“That was specifically designed for the Earth resources program at NASA, which the Landsat program came out of,” said EROS contractor Tim Smith, task lead for the DMID group.

Smith can’t say with certainty how the unique images came to be. It’s possible that the C-130 was also collecting imagery as part of a calibration test, that one of the planes served as an escort, or that the pilots were simply having a bit of fun.

The mission records do offer a few more details on the larger project the images came from. They were shot was a part of Mission 186, a Johnson mission flown with NASA’s NP-3A aircraft using a total of seven cameras, an airborne radar system and a dual infrared scanner. Imagery was collected over Pasadena, Trinity Bay, and San Antonio Bay, TX; Monterrey Bay and Los Angeles, CA; and Ascension Parish, LA.

Mission 186 and Austad’s unique finds represent just a few of the more than 10 million frames of Earth surface imagery scanned since 2005. Another quarter million frames remain to scan in the Johnson collection alone, a 3-4 year project.

There’s no telling if another clear shot of airplanes in flight might appear along the way. But if it does, Austad or one of his colleagues will be the first to see it.

“We have 100 percent visual inspection for everything we do,” he said.

The imagery is available on EarthExplorer for download at no cost to the public (registration required). Direct links to the images are located below:


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